The Judgement of History

Friday, 9. December 2016 - 10:15
Gallagher, Spurrier and Kahn. Photo by Bella Spurrier
It’s spawned rival movies and lawsuits, outrage, libel, and dozens of imitations. And the wonderful thing about one of the most significant wine events of the 20th century is that it might easily have disappeared without a trace. If it hadn’t been a slow news day in Paris, if George Taber, the city’s correspondent for Time magazine, hadn’t fancied a walk on a fine spring day, a dapper young wine merchant called Steven Spurrier might never have troubled the course of wine history as he did. 
A quiet afternoon
“It seemed like a non-event,” Taber writes in his gripping book Judgment of Paris – California vs France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine. “Clearly France would win.” A native Californian, Taber had taken classes at the Académie du Vin, the wine school associated with Spurrier’s wine shop, Caves de la Madeleine. Patricia Gallagher, also American, ran the Académie, and she had asked Taber as a personal favour to cover the tasting they were putting on.
Nobody, it seemed, was getting too excited about it. Spurrier and Gallagher had tasted a few Californian wines and liked them, and they decided to compare some California Chardonnay and Cabernet with Burgundy and Bordeaux. It was 1976, and the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence was a nice tie-in, considering the French had supported the Americans in that particular struggle against British oppression. Still, the Californians were lukewarm (they even baulked at sending the wines) and the French were not particularly interested. They invited lots of press but Taber was the only one who turned up, and he had no great hopes of Time running what he expected to be a non-story. He strolled down the Champs-Élysées, anticipating nothing more than a nice wine tasting on a lovely day.
Spurrier himself didn’t expect much more. “I assumed since I was putting in the best of Bordeaux and the best of Burgundy that the California wines wouldn’t win. But if they showed honourably, then that would get attention,” he told Meininger’s.
The judges included Raymond Oliver, owner and chef of the Grand Véfour restaurant, one of the temples of Paris cuisine; Claude Dubois-Millot, sales director of France’s food and wine bible, Gault Millau; Odette Kahn (who died in 1982), editor of La Revue du Vin de France; Aubert de Villaine, owner of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti; Pierre Tari of Château Giscours; and Christian Vannequé (who died last year) of Tour d’Argent. It’s impossible to conceive of a more august panel.
“But,” Spurrier said, “the Académie du Vin was well respected and in their very grand way they were quite flattered to be there.”
It’s important to remember that at the time, no one (let alone Spurrier) disputed that French wines were preeminent. Taber points out that Hugh Johnson’s 1971 World Atlas of Wine devoted 73 pages to France, and eight to California (South America got two pages). Spurrier assumed that only de Villaine, whose wife was from San Francisco, would ever have tasted a Californian wine. “It was rather like talking about Icelandic wines,” he recalled. 
The grands personnages who took their seats in the InterContinental were in good humour. “They were a little chattier than is normal,” Taber said, and he noted the informality of the occasion. Kahn and her peers would have been in no doubt that the differences between the California Chardonnays and the Burgundies, the Cabernets and the Bordeaux, would be obvious. Taber’s first inkling that he might have a story came when Oliver tasted a glass of Freemark Abbey 1972 Chardonnay and said, “Ah, back to France!” Then Dubois-Millot sniffed a 1973 Batard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon and pronounced, “This is definitely California. It has no nose.” Taber started scribbling.
Another wonderful thing about the tasting is that it is statistically meaningless. Spurrier added up the scores and divided by nine, a formula which gives greater weight to those judges who gave very high scores. When the scores are calculated correctly (there are numerous studies on this, the most notable by the eminent statistician Dennis V Lindley), California doesn’t win.
No matter. Kahn, Oliver, Vannequé, Dubois-Millet and other judges all placed California wines above French. It wasn’t that they had said, “It is amazing that this wine is better, seeing that it is Californian,” but, “This wine is inferior, therefore it must be Californian.” Failing to recognise a famous wine is the blind taster’s nightmare, one that any wine expert will recognise with a shudder. But this was worse. France herself had been betrayed.
The reaction was instantaneous, Spurrier said. “Odette Kahn demanded her notes back. I said, ‘I’m afraid, Mme Kahn, they are my notes not yours, which you agreed to at the beginning.’ So she walked off in a huff and immediately wrote a piece saying the voting had been rigged. That was totally untrue, and libellous.”
The French wine establishment was outraged. “I only found out later that Aubert de Villaine had been given a really hard time by [DRC co-owner] Lalou Bize-Leroy.
Other people rang him up and told him he had spat in the soup. Every single taster was pilloried. Pierre Brejoux [the head of French appellations body INAO] almost lost his job, Pierre Tari was asked to resign as Mayor of Margaux, the Restaurateurs de France turned against Jean-Claude Vrinat. It wasn’t until 30 years later that the survivors said, ‘We can tell you now, it was ghastly’.”
Passing into legend
Ghastly it might have been, but the Judgement of Paris lives on. The Smithsonian Museum displays the winning Californian wines. Apart from the hundreds of articles written about it, there has been a feature film, Bottle Shock, starring the late Alan Rickman as a preposterously effete Spurrier. Another, scripted by Karate Kid screenwriter Robert Kamen, has been mired in holdups for years. There have been numerous reruns; at the 30th anniversary in 2006, simultaneous tastings with the original wines took place in London and Napa (California came top again). Earlier this year, Spurrier did a 40th anniversary world tour, with tastings in Florida, Napa, Paris and beyond.
If there’s any doubt that the event now has mythic significance, one need go no further than Sir Peter Michael’s luxury hotel and spa, the Vineyard at Stockcross in Hampshire, where the American wine list is 3,000 strong. A few years ago Sir Peter commissioned an extraordinary six-metre canvas depicting the tasting. The positions of the judges, sitting at a long table in a gloomy, vaulted cellar (utterly unlike the bright modern room in the Paris InterContinental) carry powerful echoes of Leonardo’s Last Supper.
The Judgement was a potent endorsement of California wine, and it spawned a craze for comparative tastings. Anyone with an expensive Cabernet (or any other wine) can never resist the urge to pit it against the greats. In Berlin in 2004, Eduardo Chadwick of the Chilean winery Viña Errázuriz put two of his wines, Viñedo Chadwick 2000 and Seña 2001, up against Lafite, Margaux, Tignanello, Sassicaia and other international heavyweights. In what has come to be known as the Berlin Tasting, the Chilean wines were consistently ranked top. “I just wanted my wines to be ranked with the best,” Chadwick said, expressing surprise that they should be marked so high. Every year the Sonoma winery Vérité shows its wines alongside the starriest cuvées – Sassicaia (a popular choice for this kind of tasting, as is the hugely expensive Ribera del Duero wine Pingus), the Bordeaux First Growths, and prohibitively expensive Napa cult wines: Screaming Eagle, Scarecrow, Harlan Estate. Vérité always does well.
The history of the Paris Tasting is nothing if not exciting, but whether it had any actual, concrete effect on the industry is hard to gauge. In 1976 there was still only a handful of wineries in California that were making wine for anything but a mass market. And they weren’t keeping sales figures for posterity. “We were a pretty small business way back then and that’s not the type of records I have. I have winemaking notes and records but that’s about it,” said Barrett.
A big rise in plantings started in the early 1970s, but had stalled by the next decade. Statistics from the University of California’s Agricultural Issues Center show that grape acreage barely rose between 1976 and the mid-1990s. “The ‘80s was a decade of difficult times. There was a movement towards moderation, people attacking alcohol as just another recreational drug,” industry consultant Jon Fredrikson notes. “There are no one-liners. There were many different things happening at the same time, and it was a slow burn. The publication of the French Paradox in 1991 was more important than the Paris Tasting,” he said, referring to Bordeaux University’s study on the fact that the French have a low level of heart disease despite a diet high in fat, suggesting the beneficial effects of red wine might be the cause.
Statistics aside, there is one incontrovertible fact: the Judgement of Paris is still being talked about. On that spring day in 1976, Taber and Spurrier would have laughed at the thought of their afternoon’s “amusing” tasting still being argued over, four decades later. Taber’s article appeared on page 58 of the 7 June issue of Time magazine. It had the modest headline, “Judgment of Paris”, and no picture. It wasn’t even that page’s lead. But a good chunk of Time’s 20m readers read it, and across the US, supplies of Freemark Abbey and Chateau Montelena began to sell out. Then the New York Times picked up the story, and history began to be made. What had started as a stroll down the Champs-Élysées became what Robert Mondavi later described as “an enormous event in the history of California winemaking. It put us squarely on the world map of great wine-producing regions.”
Adam Lechmere
What was the worldwide impact of the Judgement tasting? Find out more here.
This article first appeared in Issue 5, 2016 of Meininger's Wine Business International.